The people behind the counter at Standard Sweets & Snacks are as brusque as they are at any delicatessen, perfectly willing to skip on to the next guy if you take a little too long choosing between the fried lentils and the spicy mix, to ignore you altogether if you ponder the subtle difference between the burfi made with cashews and the burfi made with pistachios. It is easy to lose yourself in the complex geometry of a stack of jalebi, tubular spirals of fried rice-flour saturated with heavy syrup.
Espresso-color gulab jamun, caramelized cheese patties, bob in the syrup in which they've been poached. Rows and rows of milk halvas, some sprinkled with nuts, some adorned with ultra-thin sheets of pure silver foil, march into the near distance.
"Please!" barks a counterwoman, gesturing at the glass-front case with a sweeping motion you may recall Carol Merrill making toward Curtain No. 2 on "Let's Make a Deal." "These are all just milk and sugar, cooked together in different ways."
Standard Sweet & Snacks is among the best of the many, many sweet shops in Artesia's Little India district, a place to stop after shopping for saris or nose rings, coconut scrapers or bootleg tapes of Sufi trance singing. There may be nothing quite so soothing after a spicy meal as a great Indian rasmalai, freshly made cheese with the open, slightly spongy texture of really good fresh mozzarella, simmered in sweet cream and then chilled, sprinkled with crushed pistachio nuts, perhaps flavored with a bare hint of rosewater, the sweet, pure essence of milk . . . unless, of course, it's rasmalai and a cup of milky, cardamom-scented masala tea. It is safe to assume that few people actually travel long distances to eat at Standard--it's something you do on an Indian afternoon in Artesia.
But though I'd been going to Standard for years, it was only recently that I ended up getting anything other than masala tea and sweets. The restaurant, which prepares vegetarian stuff from all over India, is not quite as specialized as some of the shops in the area, a couple of which carry mostly the sweet yet fiery snacks from the midwestern state of Gujarat, others specializing pretty explicitly in sticky Punjabi concoctions.
At Standard, you can get fresh tandoori-baked garlic naan that is neither quite so buttery nor so flaky as it can be at tandoori specialty restaurants. But it is good enough, served with a Styrofoam plate and a cheerful invitation to dip out spinach with cheese, curried vegetables, lentil dal and cool spiced yogurt from the steam table in the corner. You can also get a passable version of the Gujarati dish bhel puri, a sweet and sour salad made with crunchy bits of toasted noodle, chick peas, potatoes and a stiff slug of tamarind chutney.
Dahi vada is something like a spiced Punjabi lentil cookie cosseted in cool, sour yogurt. The crisp tri-cornered pastries, samosas, are stuffed with the inevitable curried potato. Channa, or curried whole chick peas come with a deep-fried puff of yogurt bread that comes out from the fryer almost the size of a basketball before it deflates into something that tastes like Navajo fry bread. You'll find most of the usual South Indian snacks--the steamed rice cakes called idli, the lentil pancake uttupam--and a sensational version of the ping-pong ball-sized breads pani puri, which you crack open, stuff with potatoes, and dip in thin cilantro sauce.
But everybody around you will be eating the masala dosa, a burnished crepe, rolled around gently curried potatoes into something the size of a Louisville Slugger, served with a small metal bowl of vegetable curry.
For customers more interested in nostalgia than taste, Standard sells packets of imported namkeen, from a famous Indian manufacturer: salty tidbits that are basically the Indian equivalent of Chex mix, sold for the same reason, one supposes, that a bakery catering to expatriate New Yorkers might feature Devil Dogs alongside its cheesecake and loaves of pumpernickel.
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Where to Go
Standard Sweets & Snacks, 18600 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (310) 860-6364. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7 to $9.
What to Get
Masala dosa, rasmalai, carrot halva.